Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The NZ Listener "100 Best Books of 2009"

Firstly, apologies for the relative lack of posts in recent times. I have had a few computer issues – so will be completing the upload of some historic posts (soon) that weren’t uploaded correctly on their days last week. It’s also been a pretty frantic time with a few other things. Back on track now – although I will be heading to Europe for 3 weeks over Xmas, so things might go into a little hiatus then too. Plenty on the horizon coming up though, and 2010 looks to be even bigger and better for this blog - lots to look forward to when it comes to Kiwi (and international) crime and thriller writing links and commentary.

Anyway, yesterday I was browsing the magazine racks, looking to pick up some Kiwi mags for a soldier friend of mine currently serving in Afghanistan. While doing so I came across the current issue (12-18 December) of the New Zealand Listener, long considered one of our premier magazines. The NZ Listener is a weekly current affairs and entertainment magazine, and is renowned for having one of the better books sections amongst local publications.

Near the end of each year the NZ Listener also has a “100 Best Books of the Year” issue, where its reviewers (who to be honest do lean far more literary than popular in their preferences) compile their list of best novels, short stories, poetry, biography, memoir, and other non-fiction (in 2009 this includes history, science, journalism and essays, art, and food and drink) books of the year.

So I picked up the current issue, intrigued. Despite the decks being stacked against crime and thriller titles in the NZ Listener, a few have made their way onto the “100 Best Books” list in previous years, including both THE CLEANER (2006) and CEMETERY LAKE (2008) from New Zealand crime writer Paul Cleave. “The plot is beautifully constructed, the characters come to worrying life, and it is all wrapped in an atmosphere of pervading evil that will make you wonder whether you should be reading it late at night,” said the NZ Listener of CEMETERY LAKE in last year’s list.

In the 2008 list, which you can view here, crime and thrillers that made the “100 Best Books” also included:
  • DEVIL MAY CARE: A JAMES BOND NOVEL, by Sebastian Faulks writing as Ian Fleming;
  • THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, by Stieg Larsson – which was noted as “the standout crime novel of the year”;
  • THE RINGMASTER, by Vanda Symon – making two out-and-out Kiwi crime novels on the 2008 “100 Best” list. Great to see.
So what does acclaimed Arts & Books editor Guy Somerset and his team have for us, crime and thriller-wise, amongst their 100 Best Books of 2009? In short, a little bit less than I expected.
It may reflect what the reviewers have managed to read themselves this year, rather than any bias, but I would have hoped that in a year with seemingly more Kiwi crime novel releases than ever before, that we would have seen a few more of the better ones make the list. Especially given a few ‘very average’ (Kiwi slang for rather poor) literary or general fiction books, local and international, that did make this year’s “100 Best” list (that’s not my words, or crime-loving bias showing through – it’s a comment from another reviewer I know and respect, who has a literary and general fiction reading bent, and has covered the books in question this year).

First, the good news for crime fans. The debut thriller ALL THE COLOURS OF THE TOWN by transplanted Scotsman Liam McIlvanney (now living in Dunedin – which seems to be becoming something of a Kiwi crime writing haunt), deservedly made the list. “McIlvanney combines Ian Rankinesque grit with poetic description in this excellent first thriller,” says the NZ Listener team.

McIlvanney, a Professor of Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, also features in a little sidebar, giving his thoughts on some of the best poetry and thrillers of the year. “First-rate thrillers have been thin on the ground in 2009,” he says. “But a truly stand-out debut is Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE, in which a haunted IRA hitman takes revenge on the paramilitary kingpins who directed his activities.” I remember McIlvanney praising Neville’s debut heartily, when I interviewed him for a Weekend Herald article a couple of months ago.

Another Kiwi book on the list could also perhaps squeeze into the local crime/thriller/mystery category. BUTTERSCOTCH by Lyn Loates, which I umm-ed and ahh-ed about before adding to the sidebar of 2009 Kiwi crime/thriller/mystery releases several weeks ago, also makes the NZ Listener’s “100 Best Books”. It’s one of only a couple of books on that sidebar I haven’t read yet, so I can’t offer any personal comment as to its ‘crime/mystery’ credentials.

The publisher’s blurb for BUTTERSCOTCH states: “Helen Mainyard was eight years old when her father suddenly uprooted the family from their home in Christchurch and settled them in Melbourne. Helen had always believed the move was her father’s response to a vicious murder that happened in the city. But when she is twenty-one the real reason for the family’s departure declares itself and causes Helen to re-visit scenes from her childhood, in particular a dark, remembered homestead called Amberley which, together with its climbing tree, had once held the inquisitive girl in its thrall. The remembered murder and the remembered house together lead Helen to unearth a trail of human transgressions.”

You can read Graham “Bookman” Beattie’s comments about BUTTERSCOTCH here.

Surprisingly there were few, if any, other crime novels on the list. INHERENT VICE by Thomas Pynchon makes it, but that’s about it. There is apparently no room for Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST. Given their literary bent, I thought the reviewers may have found space for John Hart’s excellent and award-winning literary crime novel, THE LAST CHILD, but no. Perhaps they haven’t read it – it hasn’t got much coverage here in New Zealand. It is one of only two 5-star reviews I have given for Australia's Good Reading magazine this year (although that review won't appear until January/February)

In terms of New Zealand crime, I was a little surprised Maurice Gee’s ACCESS ROAD didn’t get a mention – especially as Gee isn’t seen as a ‘genre’ writer, and is fairly beloved by New Zealand reviewers (deservedly so in most cases). Perhaps his latest crime-laced novel came out too late in the year for consideration. The same could be true of Vanda Symon’s latest, CONTAINMENT - in my opinion certainly a better book than some of the Kiwi ‘general fiction’ on the “100 Best” list.

Also, I would have thought Alix Bosco’s CUT & RUN might have got a nod, given that every review I’ve seen of the pseudonym-ed debut has been very positive. Again, perhaps the NZ Listener team simply didn’t get around to that book, as it’s perhaps not in their general ‘wheelhouse’, reading-wise. In some ways it’s a shame, but in others, that’s the beauty of such lists (or awards). They can stir debate, and get people talking about the books both on the list and not – which is always a good thing.

So congrats to Guy Somerset and the NZ Listener team for another great year of (fairly) comprehensive books coverage. I might like to see a few more crime and thriller titles (especially local ones) in their pages, but overall they do a tremendous job in books coverage. The “100 Best Books” of 2009 article will be available to read online in a couple of weeks’ time (once the print issue is no longer current). You will be able to read it via the NZ Listener website.

Thoughts on the list? What are your favourite crime and thriller titles of the year? Which crime and thriller books, New Zealand or international, deserve to be on a ‘top’ general books list?

1 comment:

  1. Agree about Cut and Run (Alix Bosco). Without a doubt the liveliest, most 'international' and most intelligent NZ crime thrilller of 2009. And now it's going to be a movie with Robyn Malcolm as Anna Markunas! Way to go!